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The African Origins of Common English Words (V)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. In the last few weeks I’ve identified a whole host of common English words that are derived from black Afr...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In the last few weeks I’ve identified a whole host of common English words that are derived from black African languages. I’ve chosen to exclude several others both because I have neither space nor time to continue and because their etymologization as African-derived words struck me as rather contrived. Still others (such as coffee, which is derived from Kaffa, a region in Ethiopia where coffee was first grown) were excluded because they are mere names of things that are native to Africa.

This week I am going beyond mere words to English expressions that emerged from the literal translation of African languages. Thus, a key observation I’d made in the first installment of these series in September 2010 has been altered. I’d observed that African languages hadn’t made the slightest influence on the structure and idioms of English. I wrote:

“To appreciate the point I am making, consider the fact that Sino-Tibetan languages such as Mandarin and Cantonese have not only enriched the vocabulary of the English language, they have also influenced its idioms and structure. For instance, the phrase ‘pidgin English’ is China’s gift to English. It was originally the Chinese (mis)pronunciation of ‘business English.’
 “Similarly, the phrase ‘long time no see’ (which is really non-grammatical by the standards of Standard English, but which is now so integral to the English language that no one thinks of its grammatical awkwardness) is China’s gift to English idioms. In proper English syntax, the phrase should have been rendered as, ‘We have not seen in a long time.’ The Oxford Dictionary says ‘long time no see’ started as a humorous imitation of Chinese English in the United States. Now it has stuck.

“And such ungrammatical but now perfectly acceptable idiomatic phrases as ‘have a look-see,’ ‘no-go area,’ ‘to lose face,’ etc. are direct translations from Chinese, sort of like ‘you and work’ becoming an accepted form of greeting in English in conformity with how that greeting is literally rendered in many Nigerian languages such as the Yoruba ‘eku ise’ or the Hausa ‘sanu da aiki,’ which we instead render as ‘well done’ in Nigerian English.”

Well, new evidence, which I present below, challenges my initial observation. There are many idiomatic, if informal, expressions in English that are the products of the direct translations of African languages. I list some of them below:

S(h)e is bad. In African-American English (and, increasingly, in mainstream American English) “bad”—or, more appropriately, “baad”—doesn’t mean the absence of good; on the contrary, it means an extreme excess of good. It means excellent, superb.  The comparative and superlative forms of this sense of “bad” are “badder” and “baddest,” as in “her sense of fashion is way badder than my sister’s” or “he is the baddest guy in town.” In northeastern United States, especially in the New York area, “wicked” is also used to mean “brilliant, very good.” Other seemingly negative expressions that connote a heightened positive in American English are “badass” (which means formidable and excellent) and “bad boy” (which, among other meanings, signifies something extremely impressive or effective).

The expression of positive extremes through negative terms in informal American English, Holloway and Vass say, derives from a direct translation of many West African languages, especially Mandingo, into English. In Bambara, a dialect of Mandingo, which is spoken mainly in Mali, the expression “a ka nyi ko-jugu” literally translates as “it is good badly.” In Sierra Leonean creole, the authors also point out, “gud baad” means very good.

Bad-mouth. To badmouth someone is to curse them, to talk ill of them, especially behind their back. The expression is a direct translation of Hausa and Mandingo expressions, according to Holloway and Vass. It’s derived from the Hausa expression “mugum baki,” which literally translates as “bad mouth,” but which connotes ill-natured talk about someone. In Mandingo, “da-jugu” also literally means “bad mouth” and is employed idiomatically to mean abuse, insult, etc.

Interestingly even the Online Etymology Dictionary admits that this popular English expression has West African origins. As with most English words and expressions that are derived from African languages, “bad-mouth” was initially an exclusively African-American English expression before it went mainstream in America and crossed the Atlantic to the UK.

Day-clean. The Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition defines this expression as “the time after first dawn when the sun begins to shine; clear daybreak,” and traces its origins to West Africa. Holloway and Vass go further and locate the roots of the expression to Bantu languages and to Wolof. In Bantu languages, “kutoka kalu” literally translates as “clean sky.” In Wolof, “ba set na” translates as “day is clean,” and in Mandingo “dugu jera” translates as “day has become clean, clear.”
“Day-clean” also began life as a uniquely African-American English expression.

Doll-baby. In American English doll-baby means a child’s doll. It is also used as a word of endearment similar to “sweetheart.” Holloway and Vass say the expression is a direct translation of the Yoruba “omo langidi,” which means a “little child.” They may be right, but I haven’t come across any other authorities that validate their theory. In any case, the expression isn’t in wide use in the United States. It’s limited to the American south along the coast.

Do one’s own thing. To do your own thing, according to the Cambridge Dictionaries Online, is “to do what you want without worrying about what anyone else thinks of you.” That expression isn’t native to English; it’s a direct translation of the Mandingo expression “ka a fen ke,” which literally means “to do one’s own thing” and which is used exactly the way it’s used in contemporary English.

When I searched for the phrase in the The American Heritage Dictionary there was no mention of its Mandingo origin. This is all the dictionary had to say about it: “Although this colloquialism became closely associated with the counterculture of the 1960s, it is actually much older. In one of his essays (1841) Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: ‘But do your thing and I shall know you.’ However, it came into wide use only during the mid-1900s.”

Hear. Almost all West African languages use “hear” to mean “understand.” In Hausa, “ina jin Hausa” (literally translated as “I hear Hausa”) means “I understand Hausa.” In Yoruba, “mo gbo Yoruba” (“I hear Yoruba”) means “I understand Yoruba.” In Mandingo, “n mu a men” (which literally translates as “I didn’t hear it”) means “I don’t understand it.” In African-American English, especially in the English-based creole spoken by Gullah people in the southern coast of the United States, “hear” is used exactly the same way it’s used in many West African languages. But I don’t get the sense that it’s mainstream in American English.

To kill. In informal English, to kill can mean to “overwhelm with hilarity, pleasure, or admiration” as in "The comedian was so funny, he was killing me!" There is no Nigerian language I know that doesn’t use “kill” in this sense. That is why Nigerian Pidgin English has such expressions as “you wan kill peson with lafta” (you want to overwhelm me with hilarity), “laff wan kill me die” (meaning that’s extremely funny, now rendered as LWKMD in Nigerian social media language), etc.  Holloway and Vass found similar expressions in Mandingo and Wollof and attribute the notion of “kill” as “overwhelm with humor” in English to West African influences.

Tentative conclusions
There are way more English words that owe their roots to African languages than many etymology dictionaries are willing to admit.  African languages have also contributed not just to the vocabulary of the English language but to its structure, however minimally. And, although the British have had contact with black Africa much earlier than America has, African languages influenced the vocabulary and structure of the English language by way of American English through African-American vernacular English.


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